As a leader, everyone on your team has created an impression of who you are and how you operate. Some of it is based on their own experience, some of it is based on rumor, all of it is subject to their unique perception. Whether the picture being painted is rosy or thorny, true or inaccurate (and often times it could be a mix of those), those perceptions get shared amongst your team and can determine how they feel about and interact with you. To reach any goals you have for being an effective leader that is satisfying to work with, you’ll need to hear directly from them how they see you showing up. There is a lot to learn about yourself from what they have to say.
Establishing and sustaining a safe way for them to give you the feedback you need to grow always begins with you reaching out to ask for it. Without your initiative, they’re more likely to stay comfortable sharing their perceptions of you with everyone but you.
A Recipe for Getting Feedback
Not sure how to invite the conversations about you and your blindspots from behind closed doors and into a face-to-face with you? Senior leadership coach and author Kristi Hedges offers a great suggestion in an article published by Harvard Business Review, How Are You Perceived at Work? Here’s an Exercise to Find Out. This is how it goes (excerpt taken directly from article):
Select five people. Choose colleagues who see you repeatedly in relevant work situations: bosses, executives, direct reports, peers, or even former colleagues. Influential co-workers who have their ears to the ground make great sources. If they know you in more than one aspect of your work or life, even better. While it’s important that you have trusted people in your group, make sure to choose people who will tell it to you straight.
Ask for a face-to-face meeting. Be clear that you’ll keep whatever the person tells you confidential, which will encourage honesty, and that you’ll be collecting feedback from several people to find themes, which lessens the burden for any one individual. Make the request in person if you can. People are more likely to consent to participate if they can see you. […]
Ask two questions. In the meeting, ask these two simple questions designed to tap into the collective wisdom:
- What’s the general perception of me?
- What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?
Depending on the person, you’ll hear responses ranging from eye-opening and helpful to vague and confusing. If the person is uncomfortable, they may rely on job- or project-specific feedback. In that case, clarify:
I appreciate that feedback. May I go up a level now and ask about the general perception of me as a leader/colleague/person?
Manage your reaction. Resist the temptation to explain yourself, defend your actions, or reveal disappointment. Your interviewees will be looking to see what effect their feedback has on you in real time. The quality of your feedback will only be as good as your ability to remain comfortable while receiving it. Ask for details or examples if you need them. And end with a sincere thank you.
Variations on the Theme
Hedge’s exercise will help you gain insight on how you’re generally perceived by your team. Changing the first question can help you get more focused feedback as well.
Want to hear about a specific aspect of how you’re showing up? Add to the first question to set the context (and follow up with the second question):
1- What’s the general perception of me regarding:
How I handled this project? My role on that team? How I show up when something important to me is challenged? How I live or don’t live our values?
2- What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success? (if you need to fine-tune “success” to express a more specific goal of yours, go for it!)
Do you have a gut instinct that something you are doing might be causing tension on the team, and you sense that no one feels safe talking to you about it? Name the thing and make it clear that you want to learn from it and grow past it, taking care to frame your instinct as a possibility so you’re not putting words in their mouth. For example:
“I feel like there is frustration with me from the team, and I want to figure out what I’m doing to cause that so I can make some changes. I think it might be around how I tend to dominate conversations – does that sound right to you? Please help me understand the effect that has and what I could be doing differently to be more successful.”
Here’s the thing – if you guessed right, it’s out in the open in a non-threatening way and you can start working toward mutual understanding and resolution. If you didn’t guess right, you’ve just established with them that you’re aware that something is up and you’re interested in surfacing what it is so you can improve. “If it’s not that, what is it?” They’re now more likely to be straight with you about what’s really going on.
Whatever you do, please do this
Whether you choose to practice these suggestions or start to hone your own method and language for going out to get feedback that will help you grow, don’t forget to follow up with the people who shared their thoughts with you. If you forget this step or assume they know how you’ve utilized their feedback, they might think their time was wasted or you never sincerely wanted to hear what they had to say. When you connect with them, be transparent about what actions you pursued based on their feedback, and be honest about your reasons if you pursued none. Ask them to tell you about any shifts that they’ve sensed in how you’re showing up, and if they have more ideas that can help you reach your goals.
Take the time to understand the gap between the version of you that your team has concocted, and the version you see of yourself. Once you’ve identified some areas for growth, you can choose new behaviors that will increase your ability to inspire, motivate, and engage your team. Every time you reach out for this kind of feedback and make it safe for them to give it, you’re honing a skill that will serve you and your team immensely. Go out and see what a difference it can make!
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